At what point in church history were women allowed to sing during Mass?

I was doing some study, and found that women were only allowed to sing during Mass after 1916. Is this true? Or maybe it was OK to sing, but not in a choir??

Women were not allowed to sing the mass settings. However, there were hundreds and hundreds of convents, and they may have been permitted to sing the mass settings, because no men - often not even the priest, were permitted within the cloister.

You will have to do some digging to see whether there are mass settings for female nuns’ choirs.

Good luck!

Mixed choirs began emerging to the baroque period.

All i know is that when I was born in 1950,and knew what was taking place in Church. I seen men and women singing in the choir and in the pews.

Hildegaard of Bingen wrote many Mass parts along with other hymns.

So if we really wanted to get seriously traditional, we women wouldn’t sing. :wink: LOL

I don’t know exactly when women were permitted to sing in Catholic church choirs, but I have done some reading on the advent of singing for women due to singing being my profession. During the Renaissance period, women were still not allowed to sing at mass. There were exceptions, though, for women/girls in convents and cloisters or convent schools. In addition, the Church and society were just beginning to allow respectable women to perform certain instruments in public as well as beginning to accept female singers to perform in secular venues. That said, female singers were still being compared as low as prostitutes, so it wasn’t something many parents wanted to encourage their daughters to do.

I know in the 20th century, women and girls were allowed to sing in the choir, but I don’t know if this was the case in the 19th century. If anything, the 19th century served as a transitional point for female singers in church choirs. The castrati had become less popular during that century and female singers were beginning to be viewed with less contempt and more respect. And castration was eventually outlawed by the Church in the early 1900s (although the Church never outrightly encouraged the practice).

I’d be interested to know, though, the exact time women were permitted to sing in choirs.

Hi Sarabande, :slight_smile:
Your question is interesting. What I am writing to you is based on history that I am familiar with and also based on my personal opinion. I am a professional singer and have done some research on this topic because I was fascinated with the eras before during and after the “castrati”. As you know from your music History classes, early music in the church was mostly Gregorian chant. In other words a single melody sung in unison. It, with time, then developed into 2 parts and 3 parts etc. When you add harmony and polyphony the range difference between the voice parts widen. You automatically develop a need for higher and lower voices. About this time (pre castrato), church music was sung by men who specialized in falsetto singing (much like our countertenors of today). The most famous school of this singing was in Spain.

With the event of the castrato in Italy, the falsetto singers were eclipsed and edged out because the castrati were a better balance to the acoustically stronger men’s voices in the choir. They were louder and also were able to sing with more endurance. About this time (Handel) women were beginning to sing in secular venues. Vivaldi (the red priest) wrote alot for the female voice but I don’t know if it was used in the liturgy. Women did not generally perform in public at all. Not even in plays. (Men played all the parts in Shakespearean plays.) Again, composers wrote for them and therefore they “were”. But the catholic church continued to use castrati in the Sistene Capella choir (the Pope’s personal choir) through the beginning of the 20th century.
I have a recording from the beginning of the 20th Century of this choir featuring the last Castrato director of the Papal Capella around 1900. The castrati were dying out and the Vatican began introducing boys. But the result is acoustically different. The boys naturally don’t have the vocal power of the castrati.
When I was living and studying in Rome, the Choir that I experienced at the Vatican were all men for the Easter procession in the afternoon. The last time I heard the Papal Choir on EWTN they were using boys in addition to the men. So, my opinion is that women’s voices were being used first as the need arose in different countries in the Catholic Church. The composers composed for the singers they had available from a practical standpoint. Look to the sacred repertoire being written, who they wrote it for and where it was performed. So, I believe that no direct official announcement was made from the Vatican. It just sort of happened that way. :shrug: I am not including music that was being sung in Protestant churches or secular repertoire.

Hi Hmgbrd! I wasn’t the original poster. I knew some information and was making guesses based on my own knowledge, although I wasn’t quite sure myself when female singers joined Catholic choirs. I am also a professional singer, so it is nice to see another one on here. :slight_smile:

I’m not completely sure, either, regarding Vivaldi’s music although I am fairly sure that some of this sacred music was originally written for girls’ voices at the girls orphanage of mostly illegitimate noblemen, that he was at for a number of years.

In regards to the castrati, it is my understanding that many castrati were originally choir boys, but during the period when they became very popular and, for some, very wealthy if they had the kind of voices to pursue an operatic career, some parents were castrating their boys as babies, long before they knew if their children had any kind of voice.

True. Although a woman of good character could be respected as a professional instrumentalist and perform in public, that was still rare and most of the time, her father or husband would keep any revenue. For female singers, though, they were looked upon almost on the same rank as prostitutes for a time. (There are a couple really good books out on the history of singers and it really is horrible how the female singers were treated early on.) I was able to perform in one of the first early opera houses in Italy a few years back… it was like a doll house, built in the 1600s. Much of my early repertoire would have been sung by castrati and some probably performed in that same house. (I’m a coloratura mezzo… lots of pant roles, especially for the early music repertoire as they were originally written for men.) I doubt many female singers performed there in the early days of opera, but I do know there were some. You really didn’t start getting more female opera singers until about the 18th century, but still no female singers in typical Catholic church choirs.

What I always found interesting was that even though the Church did not encourage the practice of castration, they still preferred having them sing in their choirs rather than using female voices. I know that the Sistine Choir stopped using boys around the Renaissance once castrati became popular, but other churches in Europe were using boys for the treble voices. I would be interested in hearing that recording you have. I’ve only heard the recording of the last surviving castrato from about the same time. Unfortunately, the recording quality as well as his age, as castrati voices did not age well, does not give a complete and full appreciation of what those voices were capable of. I know that the computer generated voice in the movie “Farinelli” tried to simulate the voice, but I still don’t think it gives a real and complete picture of the sheer, absolute power and beauty of that voice.

What I would really be interested in hearing is a live, in-the-room performance of a choir made up of castrati and the tenor and bass voices. I think, as you mentioned, it would be quite different and give us a better understanding of what church music sounded like. So many choirs try to make women simulate the natural, straight-tone voices of boys, while the men are still allowed to have a little vibrato. I would imagine that the castrati would have had a similar vibrato to the lower voiced male singers. Countertenors really don’t cut the mustard. I think most countertenors, save a few, are not that good. Of course, that will never happen since the Church banned castration in the early 20th century (one of the reasons why she had to go back to using boys again in the Sistine choir) and most people would not want to mutilate their sons before their voices changed.

(continued)

(continued from above)

So, would you say, it probably didn’t start until about the 20th century? My guess, as in my previous post, is that the 19th century was a transitional period since women were becoming more acceptable as singers in the secular part of singing and castrati were becoming less popular (around the early to mid 19th century). By the 19th century, for instance, composers rarely wrote for male sopranos. The pants roles that women played in operas written during that time were literally for women to act as boys. Whereas in the 18th century some pants roles were originally written for women (Cherubino, for instance) and other were written for castrati (ie. Julius Cesaer) and then most “pants” roles composed earlier were basically for castrati in general. And for sacred music composed during the 18th century, some were written for female voices and then others for castrati. Mozart’s soprano solos in “Great Mass in C”, for example were originally composed for his wife, Constanze, to sing for mass at the Cathedral where he was baptised in Salzburg. However, while he was in Italy, his sacred motet, “Exsultate Jubilate” was originally composed for a well-known castrato at the time.

Perhaps, some smaller churches in the 19th century were allowing women to sing in the choirs at this point, but for the most part it was basically all men and boys? Like you, I’m just basing it on what I know, conjecture and opinion. It would be interesting to see what others know and have to say. Thank you for sharing your knowledge too!!! :slight_smile:

Hi Sarabande! Likewise I am sure!! I’m trying to answer your quote, but don’t know how you get the schaded boxes!! So I hope that you can decipher this!..

I’m not completely sure, either, regarding Vivaldi’s music although I am fairly sure that some of this sacred music was originally written for girls’ voices at the girls orphanage of mostly illegitimate noblemen, that he was at for a number of years.

*Yes Vivaldi was at the orphange and wrote for his girls for sure. There is rep. for all ranges. But I don’t know if he had them singing in church. *

…Although a woman of good character could be respected as a professional instrumentalist and perform in public, that was still rare and most of the time, her father or husband would keep any revenue. For female singers, though, they were looked upon almost on the same rank as prostitutes for a time. (There are a couple really good books out on the history of singers and it really is horrible how the female singers were treated early on.)

Thanks for the tip!*

I was able to perform in one of the first early opera houses in Italy a few years back… it was like a doll house, built in the 1600s.

Many Baroque theaters were just “smaller”. At the Markgraefliches Opernhaus in Bayreuth the seats are really small. I think that the people were just smaller. But as you say on the inside it is gorgeous. The acoustics were kind of dry. I sang in a gastspiel of the Bayerisches Staatsoper in “Ariadne”, a Richard Strauss opera. I would have loved to hear you in Italy.

What I always found interesting was that even though the Church did not encourage the practice of castration, they still preferred having them sing in their choirs rather than using female voices.

No wonder! They sounded better, were more resilient, had more technique and musicianship (because they had studied for years longer), and were dependable (their voices didn’t change in a few years.) and a new treble would have to be found

I know that the Sistine Choir stopped using boys around the Renaissance once castrati became popular, but other churches in Europe were using boys for the treble voices. I would be interested in hearing that recording you have. I’ve only heard the recording of the last surviving castrato from about the same time. Unfortunately, the recording quality as well as his age, as castrati voices did not age well, does not give a complete and full appreciation of what those voices were capable of. I know that the computer generated voice in the movie “Farinelli” tried to simulate the voice, but I still don’t think it gives a real and complete picture of the sheer, absolute power and beauty of that voice.

*Again ditto. The simulation was interesting, but unsatisfying. I would have loved to hear one live too. I know the recording that you have. I believe that he was in his 60s when it was recorded. Remember that they had to sing into a funnel which recorded onto wax when you listen to your recording. Everyone sang into the funnel at the same time. Listen to the accompaniment and choir behind him and imagine using your acoustic memory of what the sound would be like now. *

What I would really be interested in hearing is a live, in-the-room performance of a choir made up of castrati and the tenor and bass voices. I think, as you mentioned, it would be quite different and give us a better understanding of what church music sounded like.

Absolutely!!

So many choirs try to make women simulate the natural, straight-tone voices of boys, while the men are still allowed to have a little vibrato.
*
Unfortunately a disordered approach attempting to artificially create an even sound.*

I would imagine that the castrati would have had a similar vibrato to the lower voiced male singers.
*
You can hear on the recording that he has a vibrato.*

Countertenors really don’t cut the mustard. I think most countertenors, save a few, are not that good.

*There are a number of really good counters out there. I sang in one of the International Haendel Festivals in Karlsruhe. Almost all of the pants roles were counters, one better than the other and all different. But as you said not all counters are of that caliber, just as not every regular singer is first class either. That is what was heartbreaking about the castrato phenomenon. Sometimes if a boy’s voice showed promise as a child, then perhaps his poor and/or greedy family members with the hopes of fame, fortune, and a better life would agree for castration. Having done that, it was not a guarantee that said boy would actually develop into a first class soloist later on. Many landed in the choirs and the visions of fame and fortune disappeared as mist in the morning. *
TO BE CONTINUED…

Both Bach and Mozart composed Masses that included female voices in their original scores. Masses of both composers were sung in both Lutheran and R. Catholic Churches.
Neither composer wrote music for castrati.
In addition, there are numerous Masses composed in the 190th century that included female voices in their scores.
One must remember that the castrati were largely an Italian phenomena. They were all but unknown in Austria, Bavaria, France and Spain.

That is not completely correct. Mozart did write for castrati. His sacred motet, “Exsultate Jubilate” was actually composed for and commissioned by the Italian castrato Venanzio Rauzzini. I couldn’t remember his name in my previous post, but looked it up in my Breitkopf edition of my score. What I also found was that Mozart’s opera, Lucia Silla, was set at this time and Rauzzini was to sing the role of Cecilio. Mozart composed the music to fit Rauzzini’s voice. In fact, although most ,if not all, female singers sing the high C at the end of “Alleluja,” Rauzzini apparently did not have the vocal range, so the original score does not include it. This sacred motet would have been performed for liturgy in Milan. (Interesting side note, Mozart’s father, appalled by the liturgical music used by the Milanese, influenced the young composer that it was inappropriate to compose liturgical music in that more dancing and joyous manner for outside of Milanese churches).

Also, we do know that the solo arias in Mozart’s masses were often intended for female singers (ie. my earlier example of his “Great Mass in C” in which the soprano solos were composed for his wife, Constanze), although I don’t think he wrote in his scores something like “for female soprano”. :stuck_out_tongue: It also doesn’t indicate if the choirs, themselves, were made up of female singers as well. They might have still used boys or men (although castrati weren’t popular in Austria, so more than likely they were boys) in the choir while the soloists were women. For his solo music, especially, I would imagine most of the arias, duets, trios, etc. in the masses would be for adults to sing because the music is complex and requires a well-trained voice. Perhaps some choirs did, but I have a feeling (this is only a feeling as I haven’t read anything on it) that most Catholic choirs in the 18th century, still used boys for the treble voices.

As Hmgb mentioned, Protestants were using females more often in choirs, but we also have to remember that boys were still used in choirs. For instance, Bach used choir boys to help with the organ while he played and I’m sure those boys were used for the masses and other music he wrote whereever he worked. That said, I haven’t read as much on Bach’s vocal music, so can’t say what kind of voices he was writing for at the time.

In the 190th century!?!? :stuck_out_tongue: Yes, you are right. In the 19th century, many of the solo music written in masses were for the female voice as their voices became more popular and well-loved. I would venture to guess that Verdi’s “Requiem” used female voices in the choirs at that point and back then it was performed in churches, as the operatic form was popular for use at mass, which is one of the reasons why a crackdown had to be made by the beginning of the 20th century. This is why I think the 19th century served more as a transitional period of women starting to sing in Catholic choirs. (We should make the distinction that we are only focusing on Catholic choirs, since things were different in other denominations)

That said, Faure often wrote for boy/men’s choirs in the 19th c. which is why you often hear purists argue that the “Pie Jesu” from his Requiem should be sung with more of a straight toned voice and are appalled whenever an singer performs it with any kind of vibrato. Whereas, Durufle’s “Pie Jeus”, written in the 20th century was meant for a female voice and is not “wrong” to sing it with a vibrato.

True. Italy was mostly known to have the castrati. Austria and Bavaria would more than likely not have used them. In fact, in all of my readings of the 18th century and the opera world, you rarely read about them being in those countries. In France and Spain, though, although not as common, they were popular phenomenons and would often come to those countries to perform.

True. Italy was mostly known to have the castrati. Austria and Bavaria would more than likely not have used them. In fact, in all of my readings of the 18th century and the opera world, you rarely read about them being in those countries. In France and Spain, though, although not as common, they were popular phenomenons and would often come to those countries to perform.

Yes they were really the rock stars of their time! On the subject of to vibrato or not to vibrato…:p… I personally believe that one shouldn’t confuse a healthy, natural vibrato with a tremolo. Sorry, don’t want to change the subject! I also think that on a special occasion (major mass with orchestra for example on a feast day) other norms might have been in place. Whereas for daily mass the “regulars” were used.

I want to respond more to your other posts, but I have a little one to play with and I also have to take advantage of practicing when I can. haha! I’ll respond more later.

Rock-and-roll castrati stars. So true. Totally agree with the vibrato issue too. In one of the bios I read on Mozart, he addressed the issue in one of his letters. The use of vibrato for liturgical music was a “controversy” even then. He hated the straight toned voices as well and argued in the letter that all instruments had a natural vibrato, including the voice, which is very true. Children also have a natural vibrato, but not as prevalent as an adult’s voice, but I’ve watched how some childfren’s choir directors will train their voices to be more straight.

He did not like a forced vibrato either, so I’m guessing to him anything forced was something that was false.

more later.

Excellent point! What made it officially OK in 1916 for women to start singing the mass? Did GOD tell the pope “It’s OK now, let 'em sing?”

Hi LittleDavid, That has been the whole point of this discussion from an evolutionary/historical/cultural perspective! There was no “Official” announcement in 1916 from the Vatican because women had already been singing in church for some time before that. When the repertoire being written and sung called for a female voice to sing, then a female voice sang. Simple as that. And …He didn’t object, so…:D. Hope that this helps the confusion! I guess Sarabande and I got into the whys and wherefores and didn’t directly answer your question. :slight_smile:

Have been enjoying your discussions.:slight_smile: My references are this: “Women should not be part of a choir; they belong to the ranks of the laity. Separate women’s choirs too are totally forbidden, except for serious reasons and with permission of the bishop.” (Sacred Congregation for Liturgy, decree 22Nov.1907)
AND: “Any mixed choir of men and women, even if they stand far from the sanctuary, is totally forbidden.” (Sacred Congregation for Liturgy, decree 18Dec.1908)
I will try to find the 1916 document that OK’d women to sing, but as you can see as of 1908 it was forbidden. Any comments are welcome.:slight_smile:

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